Virginia Tech®home

Jim Hawdon

Online Extremism in a Global Society

Extremism is always evolving, and so is the research of Jim Hawdon, Professor of Sociology and Director, Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.  When he started his work, he was interested in the influence of communities on crimes and community responses to crime. For example, the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks all lived in communities in which it was easy to hide and go unnoticed. With the world rapidly embracing the internet and social media, Hawdon has adapted his definition of community to keep abreast.

“The virtual world is a community,” he explains, “and social media is the perfect environment in which to hide. You can create a whole new identity. And I’m afraid of—and there’s evidence of this—that it has socially shrunk us.”

The phenomenon is called the echo-chamber: Facebook and other social media automatically filter information, posts, and advertisements to align with each user’s views. This constant loop of like-mindedness helps people become entrenched in their opinions.

“People like to be around people who think like themselves. We’ve always done that. The problem with the internet is its efficient at it and people don’t realize it is happening.”

This environment in turn ushers in a new era of hate speech and online extremism.

“The pathway from confident in views to dogmatic to becoming extreme is a relatively easy path to go down,” warns Hawdon.  “I’ve become fascinated by what social media has done to civil society.”

Hawdon, the recipient of several ISCE awards and most recently a 17-18 ISCE Scholar award, works with international collaborators across the globe to study online extremism. In 2014, he partnered with colleagues in Finland. In the years since, he has expanded his scope. His new work as an ISCE Scholar  will replicate data from Finland, Germany, the U.S., and the United Kingdom, as well as expanding to France, Spain, and Poland.

Hate speech in the United States differs from hate speech in Europe. Hawdon explains: “Here its race, and in Europe it is religion—anti-Muslim. The unifying factor is anti-immigrant sentiments.”

This broad geographic focus also allows Hawdon to look at all of the types of the Western welfare state: Nordic, continental, Mediterranean, Eastern Bloc, and the capitalistic nature of the U.S. model. Hawdon is curious to see whether the social security that a welfare state provides could reduce radical Islam, anti-immigrant, or other threats that residents perceive.

And while the internet, too, is evolving—Hawdon has marked a downtick in hate groups but an uptick in people without ties to terrorist organizations committing crimes in the name of terrorist organizations—there is hope.

“When you stand up to the bully, the bully often punches you. You have to have the courage. But when you do that, it makes that little piece of the internet a safer spot. The community of users can police themselves,” encourages Hawdon.

Corporations such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter can also make large impacts on civil society by cracking down on hate speech, fake news, and the like. Government also has to be a piece of the solution—Germany has strict hate laws and also significantly lower rates of hate speech.

“The internet is a challenging environment. We have a tendency to think it’s different from anything we’ve seen before and that’s not true. It still follows the same laws of social interaction. Like other communities, we can make them safer through our interactions and our willingness to look out for each other,” says Hawdon.